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WWA tags pangolin research in the Kalahari

WWA is delighted to have supplied tags and tracking equipment for The Kalahari Pangolin Project led by Dr Wendy Panaino

Wendy has spent the last 8 years wandering the red dunes of the Kalahari, where she has undertaken various projects relating to ecology, physiology, and climate change. She is dedicated to improving our understanding of the Temminck’s pangolin – an insect-eating scaly mammal that has been largely understudied. She obtained her PhD on the ecology and physiology of pangolins some years ago and is currently employed by Tswalu Kalahari Reserve.

As an ecologist at Tswalu, Wendy focuses on broader ecosystem-related work, such as predator-prey dynamics on the reserve, and contributes to pangolin conservation and assisting students on various pangolin research projects, including the two projects below.

PROJECT 1: The ecological role of Temminck’s pangolins in the Kalahari ecosystem

Pangolins are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN red list of threatened species with a decreasing population trend. This is primarily due to the activities of the illegal wildlife trade as well as electrocution by electrified fences, roadkill, habitat loss, and climate change. However, understanding the impacts of losing pangolins from the ecosystem is poorly understand because their ecological role has never been quantified.

During 2023, MSc student Daniel Rossouw followed pangolins tagged with tracking devices, documenting how much soil they turn over during foraging activity, what sorts of nutrients are cycled during such activity, as well as what that soil turnover means for biodiversity accumulation across time to help quantify the impact that pangolins have on their ecosystem. Individuals have been recorded foraging at up to 35 sites in an hour with an average of 11 foraging sites per hour i.e.  88 sites per night for a pangolin foraging for 8 hours. Approximately 1.4 litres of soil is moved per dig site, which totals 124 litres of soil each night. Soil turnover is a vital process for nutrient cycling, which benefits the core of an ecosystem in various ways.

PROJECT 2: The specific habitat requirements of Temminck’s pangolins in the Kalahari

The distribution and habitat use of Temminck’s pangolins is being studied at two levels:

1) regionally in the north-west of South Africa, to investigate the potential drivers of pangolin distribution in the Northern Cape province and understand whether their range is contracting in this area as expected due to climate change; and

2) at a local level, investigating specific habitat use of pangolins tagged with tracking devices to better understand their environmental requirements, what may limit their distribution, and which habitats may be suitable for released pangolins after they have been rehabilitated following confiscation from the illegal wildlife trade.

The study also hopes to show whether changes in quality affect pangolin use of habitat, for example whether degraded areas are avoided. Benjamin Melamdowitz has just started his MSc by interviewing locals in the Northern Cape to investigate pangolin distribution and tracking tagged pangolins to look at distribution and movement of the population.

Wendy and her team have many more research projects in the pipeline and are pleased to receive support from WWA, “without whom we would not be able to conduct such important and meaningful pangolin conservation research”.

Photo credits: with thanks to @marcuswestbergphotography

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